Proposed bill would impact mentally ill defendants

By Whitney Hodgin

TOPEKA — Members of the Criminal Law Advisory Committee considered a new bill Friday that would raise the legal standard for court-ordered psychological evaluations of criminal defendants.

The bill, which is sponsored by the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, stipulates that competency evaluations must be performed in a timely manner and only by psychologists with a doctorate level of education or higher.

State Rep. Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican who chairs the committee, said that if the measure is passed, it would have a direct impact on mentally ill people accused of violent crimes, such as former Leonardville resident Howard Barrett. Current law allows cases such as Barrett’s to fall through the system’s cracks, she said.

“Ninety-eight percent of mentally ill people are not violent, but for the two percent with violent histories, we need to be more careful,” Colloton said.

Barrett, who is psychotic and suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, was accused of murdering Thomas James, of Clay Center. James was found stabbed and beaten to death in Barrett’s apartment in 2008.

Five years prior to that incident, Barrett had been a patient at Osawatomie State Hospital. His involuntary confinement had been ordered after Barrett was declared incompetent to stand trial on an attempted murder charge from 2001.

Less than a year after Barrett was admitted to Osawatomie, Don Jordan, the superintendent of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS), decided to relocate him to a Manhattan halfway house, where he could receive outpatient services from Pawnee Mental Health and come and go as he pleased.

“The community-based services expected to be available to Mr. Barrett include supportive employment, case management and follow up for his medications,” Jordan wrote in a decision also signed by Mario Marcelino, a staff psychiatrist at Osawatomie.

But Barrett’s attorney, Larry McRell, said he did not regularly solicit the recommended outpatient services from Pawnee.

Testifying in support of the bill, McRell told the committee that current law affords more legal authority to the recommendations of psychologists who perform competency evaluations than to district judges. That’s a problem, he said, because the psychologists can be unqualified and unprofessional.

The result, he said, is that communities such as Manhattan and Leonardville can be exposed to unsupervised, violent and mentally unstable people such as Barrett.

Colloton supports efforts to reform the procedures for discharging patients with violent tendencies who are no longer the responsibility of the criminal justice system.

“There is a need for judicial review in order to assure SRS is not violating standards of public safety,” Colloton said. “This bill requires SRS to go to court before they release patients who were referred there for competency evaluations in a serious crime.”

Riley County District Judge Paul Miller ordered Barrett’s involuntarily confinement to Osawatomie earlier this month after he was deemed permanently incompetent to stand trial for James’ murder. But under current law, there is nothing to prevent someone at Osawatomie or SRS from ordering his release again. Some supporters of the bill believe reasons such as money or lack of bed space often drive such decisions.

Pawnee County attorney John Settle represents Osawatomie State Hospital and sits on the Judicial Review Committee. He opposes the bill because of the expense of the proposed changes and the potential for disruption of current intake and discharge procedures.

“I don’t think now is the time to change,” Settle said. “Our biggest challenge is keeping staff and bed space. Let’s just be more efficient.”

Colloton said support from the Judicial Review Committee would actually encourage the state legislature to channel more funding to SRS.

“You’re ignoring the political and legislative process,” Colloton said. “When a piece of legislation highlights a dramatic problem and it gets enough motivation, you quadruple your chances of getting funding.”

The Board of Forensic Examiners considered funding when it drafted the bill, Board Vice President David Mouille said.

“But this bill is not about finances, it’s about procedure, policy and public safety,” he said. “Psychiatrists and psychologists are putting dangerous people on the streets because it’s financially advantageous to them, not because it’s good practice.”

Board members did not make a final decision of whether to support the bill.

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